Best-selling Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić is passionate about politics, literature and her home country. As her new book is published, we caught up with the outspoken author.
Q: What made you choose animals as the narrators of your new book, ‘A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism’?
A: Although I am aware of the great tradition of fables from Aesop to La Fontaine and even George Orwell, I was more inspired by – boredom! When I was asked to write a book on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism last year, I thought of so many analytical and historical books being published. I wanted to write something different. In any case, I had fun while writing tales about Bohumil the mouse, Gorby the cat, Ms Piggy the pig, Koki the parrot and other animal characters from my book. They were great companions for a while.
Q: Which of your books are you most proud of?
A: Oh, it is really not possible to say. I think that perhaps it is always the latest! Just because you are preoccupied with it, worry about it, follow it as it pops up here and there. Besides, I don’t look behind. What is done is done. There are so many interesting issues, events, and ideas to follow and think about. No time to deal with the past. Yes, you can certainly learn from your mistakes, but mistakes are also a part of life. However, there are two books that are in a way special because of the way I worked on them, going through a lot of documents. One is a non-fiction book ‘They Would never hurt a Fly’ about war criminals on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia. The other is a novel based on true stories, ‘As if I am not There’, about the mass rape of women, mostly Bosniaks, during the war in Bosnia. I am glad it recently made it into a feature film, too.
Q: Who are the most exciting new Croatian writers at the moment?
A: You see, ten years ago I had a feeling that there was a vacuum in Croatian literature. At the end of the nineties, only a few books appeared, and they were war memories, not novels. The situation was kind of strange, it made one ask oneself what was to come. Just a few years later there was a kind of explosion of new names, a big production. Just like a firework. I was happy that many of these new writers were women and that young people are still eager to write, in spite of the fact that it is impossible to live from writing. Today, there are many interesting writers and it would be unjust to mention only a few names.
Q: How much of an influence does Croatia’s Communist past still exert on the nation’s politics, culture and society?
A: It is only two decades since the collapse of that political system and our mentality – the way of understanding the world, the political life, habits, etc – is still very much influenced by the old regime. I think that to learn about our Communist history is of vital importance in order to understand our present. When you live for several generations under Communism, it is natural that you develop certain values and habits, a way of thinking and behaving. And it is not easy to get rid of the old habits.
I think that this mentality is evident in, for example, the fact that people in the former Communist countries have great difficulty in accepting personal responsibility, from the top down. Responsibility is not a familiar concept to them because it is the other side of democratic freedoms. It cannot be developed in the mass society, where individualism is proscribed. Nowadays, even 20 years after the political changes, lack of responsibility still creates a lot of problems. This tells you how slowly a Communist mind-set changes.
Q: Is Croatia ready to lose some of its independence again by becoming part of the EU?
A: Twenty years after, one cannot help but notice a kind of ‘Balkan paradox’ happening in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. First came independence and dismembering of Yugoslavia through bloody wars. Tens of thousands of lives were lost. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced or resettled, not to mention those maimed and orphaned. Between 30,000 and 50,000 women, mostly Bosniak, were raped. Then, a mere decade after this tragedy, all of the newly-established independent states, including parties which sacrificed people to achieve their independence, wanted to enter the EU and live in union with the neighbours they were killing, historically speaking, only yesterday. I call this the ‘Balkan paradox’.
Q: Is Croatia still lagging behind the EU nations in terms of social values?
A: Perhaps the worst damage that people experienced during Communist times everywhere was the lack of individualism. Communism was a collective society and any demonstration of individual opinion, of behaviour or even looks, was suspicious and even punished – be it in a school, at a workplace or even in your private life. Croatians are still not acting as individuals, by expecting problems to be solved by somebody ‘up there’, by still succumbing to nationalist collective, to the ‘We’.
Q: Which elements of contemporary Croatian culture impress you the most?
A: Actually, there is something that depresses me – the attitude of this society towards cultural property, be it monuments or architecture. Not only that culture is not a priority, but also that it is terribly neglected. We do not take care of what we have and this is sad. Think about how many small towns from the Renaissance there are on the coast, real pearls of architecture, and how much they are devastated by surrounding unlicensed summer houses. Or simply left to collapse, like in inner Istria.
Q: How do you think Croatia is perceived abroad? Do you think its image has been established in a positive way?
A: I am afraid that people abroad know very little about Croatia: perhaps that it is a small, new state somewhere in eastern Europe or in the Balkans, with a beautiful coast and many islands. They might know about Dubrovnik or Medjugorje or Hvar, but not much more. It is sad because it deserves to be known and seen.